Vic: Time Doesn’t Matter by Jerry Gill & Edgar Rice Burrough

Vic is an odd book in that it’s really three mashed together into one narrative. The first half of the book is an abridged version of a couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels concerning a pair of ancient humans, Nu and Nat’ul, whose love was constantly foiled by circumstances. The second half follows Vic, a reincarnation of Nat’ul, a 1920s dame hell bent on adventuring her way around the world in her search for Nu’s reincarnation.

It’s an interesting mash up, and I enjoyed Mr. Gill’s use of public domain literature, but it takes up too much of the book. Additionally, his part of the story reads like more of a travelogue instead of a novel. Finally, although entertaining, the novel doesn’t reach a satisfying resolution, instead covering little ground that hadn’t already been covered.

First, the use of Burroughs’s public domain work is a clever idea. Gill abridged and rewrote portions of it, but ultimately, the bulk of it appeared to be the original material. The idea was to use that as a building block for Gill’s work, which was meant to be a continuation of a story that he felt was unfinished.

Before I go any farther, let me emphasize how much I approve of this sort of thing. There are great works of literature that any later author would be a fool to try and follow up, whether or not public domain, but Burroughs’s adventure novels are ripe for it. I only vaguely knew who the author was from classes I took years ago, so directly using his work reintroduced him to me. It’s an interesting way to keep old adventure novels viable. Also, Gill stays true to the spirit of the work, and makes efforts to write in a more modern, but similar, style as Burroughs.

He meets with mixed results, but it’s a good faith engagement public domain intellectual property that I think introduces a vitality that would otherwise be absent. I don’t think that art stands on its own, but is instead a result of the creator’s interaction with his work, the interactions of those who view the work with it, and the interactions of those who seek to adapt the work or find inspiration in it. It’s a conversation that our current intellectual property regime guts in a mad dash to suck every last penny out of an IP until it’s nothing more than a heap of exploited, rotten ideas. Ahem, not that I have a horse in this race, so back to the review proper.

All of the above things said, I think that the amount of time Gill spent on Burroughs’s work should have been greatly reduced. As it stands right now, it’s a little over half of the book. At most, it should have been no more than a fifth, maybe a quarter, which would have been sufficient to introduce the reader to the old material, give them the feel of it, and set up the story that Gill continues. Instead, the reader gets bogged down and is left wondering when Gill’s writing is going to kick in. I don’t think the author spent this much time on the old work out of laziness or in bad faith, let me be clear, but it did eat up too much of the book, and this was one of the big issues with his work.

My second problem with the book is the way Gill presents the story. At times, the author is more interested in informing the reader about the cultures, animals, and geography that Vic encounters than he is in fleshing out the characters or moving the plot along. It’s charming, because given that Vic is a travelling adventuress whose job it is to report on the strange places she goes, the detail makes sense. The author, however, spends more time than is necessary on this, which periodically slows down the story itself and makes it read more like a travelogue than fiction. This doesn’t always happen, but it happens frequently enough to bog things down.

Also, the author usually speaks directly to the reader when presenting the information, when it really should have come from Vic or one of the other characters. It’s not a style that I’m a fan of, and it makes the amount of information, and the school room lecture tone of it, far more noticeable.

The plot itself is one small adventure after another, which, although entertaining, never quite connects into something larger than that. Vic never runs across the person she’s searching for directly which, given the first half of the book was her previous self, Nat’ul, constantly missing him, gets frustrating. The last half of the book read more like the middle that was leading up to some sort of revelation, some encounter with Nu. Instead, it’s pretty much all there is. There are a few adventures, a bit of danger, and a lot of interesting information, but very little that amounts to an outcome beyond the same water already treaded before being treaded again.

The third and final major criticism I have of the book is that the ending isn’t much of an ending, at least to a novel. Had Vic’s adventure been presented as a short story, with a length to match, the ending would have worked, since it was basically a quick wrap up of everything that left few questions. Unfortunately, her adventure is a second half of a book the first half of which was squarely focused on the difficulties Nu and Nat’ul went through to be together. There’s no resolution of this plot. Instead, she gets an idea of who the reincarnation is and hopes she’ll run into him some day.

Given that the first half of the book, Burroughs’s work, is at least a half dozen near misses where Nu and Nat’ul almost get together, ending the book on another one is irritating. The first fifth to a quarter of the book should have been the old material, the middle half Vic’s adventure, and the last quarter how that transitioned into her finally meeting up with Nu. Instead, the readers are left right where they started. None of the characters change or accomplish much of anything in the grand scheme of things by having a romp in the jungle.

Ultimately, the author gets brownie points for trying to do something interesting with some old public domain intellectual property, an area I feel there is a lot to be done with. Gill, however, spends too much time on the old material, then too much time on describing Vic’s adventures without communicating why they matter. Finally, he ends the book on a shrug, rather than a proper conclusion.

If you want to pick up a copy, you can get one from Amazon here.

The Acolytes of Crane by J.D. Tew

The Acolytes of Crane is one of those books that never quite coalesce into something coherent. There’s an interesting premise at the heart of it, namely pitching the battle between God and Satan as a battle between two advanced alien factions, and the main character has a promising start as a child from a broken household. Unfortunately, the pacing of the plot, the way the author presents the larger picture, and technical issues with the writing cripple the story before it can get started.

The pace of the story is a slow one that lingers in odd places. The initial bit Theodore, the main character, escaping from his broken home and finding a mysterious amulet is paced well enough, but then the story lingers for a long while in an attempt to build up the sense of mystery. The problem with this is that not enough besides the occasional unexplained event is really happening to keep things interesting.

There’s a good bit about how the character interacts with other children, what some of his issues are, and how he’s dealing with life in general, and in a different work, this would have been fine. Here, however, it was not intended to be the focus, and thus it drags on for too long. The real point of the book is Theodore and his friends getting swept up in an adventure, but the sweeping doesn’t really happen until the last third of the book.

Even then, the characters, instead of jumping right into the action, end up stuck on a ship treading water, and after that, in the climax of the book, the author begins jumping between perspectives, which slams on the brakes. The actual climax of the book hits right at the end, and there’s never a good denouement to tie it all together.

The second issue with the book lies in how the author presents the material. There’s a lot going on, but instead of letting the reader, and the character, feel out the world at an organic pace, the author relies on strings of paragraphs that outright tell the reader what’s going on, at times referring to future events. I’m not a fan of any story that jumps around time, even if it’s just in a quick, referential paragraph. It takes a lot of skill to pull something like that off, and the author doesn’t manage it here.

Worse, once the real adventure starts, the author throws a bevy of made up words at the reader in dense, two to three page paragraphs that rapidly become incomprehensible. There’s a lot of fun to be had in naming things as you write, but it’s important to show some restraint. Here, the words the author makes up never have a chance to really settle in.

In about five pages, I learned about five or so alien races, a bunch of fake technological jargon, the names of several planets, and a version of hacky sack. Used well, new words, like ‘fracking’ in Battlestar Galactica, can do a great deal to flesh out a world. In this case they end up being excessive, and most of them sound a bit silly when said aloud.

Now, on to the biggest issue with the book: the writing. It’s rare that I focus on the writing itself, since it’s a bit technical and really takes practice to improve. In this case, the issues were fundamental enough that they bear mentioning.

First, the sentence structure is incredibly convoluted. Given how I tend to write, that’s the pot calling the kettle black, but the way the author put the sentences together made it very hard for me to get through the book. Occasionally, the author also has paragraphs that stretch for several pages, most of which are exposition dumps given in dialogue form. The fact that the author messes up the grammar here and there, misses capitalization, and gets verb tenses wrong substantially exacerbates the issue.

Second, the author’s word choice routinely baffled me. An example: “I was simply adding to a massive collection of wounds to eternalize my fun those days.” That’s how the author says the character scraped up his hands climbing a tree. Now and then, that could slide, but almost every paragraph has at least one sentence like that. It’s difficult to read, and the words frequently don’t line up quite right into something intelligible. True, I can decipher what the author intended, but almost every sentence could have been simplified and made into cleaner, comprehensible writing.

Finally, there were parts of the book in which the writing made it difficult for me to follow what was happening. Once I figured it out, the events themselves were pretty straightforward, but the way the author technically presented them via diction, sentence structure, and paragraph structure (as well as a bevy of the made up words discussed above) baffled me. This shouldn’t happen in any book. The reader should only ever be confused when the author expressly wants him or her to be, and even then it should be done sparingly.

I don’t say the following to be cruel or snarky, but I’m a law student. I’m trained to extract obscure information from dense legal opinions. I spend a lot of time critically examining fiction, or writing it, each week. And there were parts of this book that, despite my best efforts, I simply couldn’t follow.

The book has issues with its pacing and how the author builds the world, but what ultimately kills it is the author’s technical writing. It needs a substantial amount to be of the necessary quality to tell the story the author wants to. It’s a shame, because the basic premise of the book would have made for an interesting adventure.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here.

The Leonard Regime by Alex Henderson

The Leonard Regime follows a young prisoner turned rebel as he and his friends try shoot up the cronies of the corrupt U.S. dictator, President Leonard. It’s a solid enough concept, but serious shortcomings in the presentation and content keep the story from ever taking off. First, the world isn’t well presented and the situations the characters find themselves in aren’t believable. Second, the author uses first person and falls into the trap of being too casual with the reader, so the book never has the right tone that it should. Finally, the pacing never gives the world time to evolve or the characters to grow.

What the reader knows about the world is usually presented in first person bursts of exposition. Although we’re told why the world is the way it is, we’re never really shown any proof of that. There’s never a sense of oppression, of a world chafing under the rule of President Leonard. Instead, the bad guys show up to shoot the good guys on cue because it’s their job to. It’s one thing to say that people are living under a oppressive regime but quite another to make the reader feel the same oppression as the characters do and rail against it. And, for a book like this one to work, that’s essential.

Additionally, most of Leonard’s henchmen shoot about as well as drunken hamsters. There’s never a sense of danger in any of the situations the characters get into even though every single one of them should have been dead several times over. Their escapes are too convenient, and it’s just not believable that a man who seized control of the U.S. would not have competent secret police. More than once, I found myself baffled by the fact that the main characters got away with what they did.

Worse, when any character actually suffers what should be the natural consequences of his or her actions, there’s never an appropriate build up to it. One moment, the characters are careening along mowing down trained soldiers like the slow kid (me) at a dodge ball game, and the next one of the previously invulnerable characters is dead. It’s like a switch flipping between ‘escape unscathed’ and ‘doom’ that saps the tension out of all of the action. Ultimately, I found myself waiting for the story to hand the characters another easy escape instead of focusing on the action itself.

As mentioned above, the author wrote this book in first person. I have a love hate relationship with the tense because it tends to work well or fail, and there’s rarely a middle ground. Here, the author takes a conversational, sarcastic tone with the reader via the main character that never sat well with me. Having someone sarcastic narrating a story set to the backdrop of an oppressive government does not work that well unless the presentation of the world, or the events of the story, are so bleak that some manner of humor is necessary to keep the reader going through it all. Even then, there are only a few particular brands of sarcasm that work well, and that of the teenage sort really isn’t one of them.

The casual tone made it hard to tell if it was the character or the author speaking at any given time, and the author used it as a shortcut to communicate bursts of exposition that would have been better presented if the reader was left to figure the world out for him or herself. It’s easy to tell the reader everything he or she needs to know, but it doesn’t make for an engaging story. This also holds true for character development.

Whenever the main character, Daniel, had something on his mind, he told the reader about it directly. I’ve said this before, but I really enjoy figuring out who the characters are and what they’re thinking, and I never had the chance to do that here. Everyone clearly fell into a certain category of stock character, and there was one in particular, Brandon, who I couldn’t fathom. He was intended as comic relief, but since there was already a sarcastic main character, Brandon didn’t really contribute anything to the story besides being remarkably stupid.

Finally, there’s the pacing itself. There’s rarely more than three or four pages before the characters are running, shooting, or otherwise navigating their way through another dangerous situation. The first problem with this is that, since they are always in transit, it’s difficult for the author to flesh out the world. The only glimpses the reader gets are fleeting, and there’s never enough there to say anything meaningful about the world.

The second issue is that the characters don’t really have room to grow. Sure, people die, someone cries about it, or someone else gets angry, but there’s just not enough material beyond a quick post combat rundown to give the reader a chance to really feel for the character. They end up being people that stuff happens to in the same way that 1 and 2 happen to equal 3 when added together. It’s a detached understanding, with obvious results and lacking in passion.

Apologies to any mathematicians with strong feelings on the subject.

Ultimately, the author does not effectively communicate the setting or the characters. The situations the characters find themselves in and survive are not believable, which drains the tension out of the story, and the pace of the novel exacerbates these issues. It was a good faith effort, but unfortunately The Leonard Regime falls flat.

If you want to check it out, you can pick up a copy here.